Let's Pretend

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Let's Pretend

From the 1930s to the mid-1950s, Let's Pretend was one of the most enduring and highly lauded radio programs for children ever broadcast. For over two decades of Saturday mornings (apart from a few years in a bi-weekly, early evening slot during the 1938-39 season), the show presented familiar fairy tales such as "Cinderella," "Rumplestiltskin," "Sleeping Beauty, "The Little Lame Prince," and "Jack and the Beanstalk," along with the occasional original story, in fully-dramatized half-hour segments featuring a large cast of new and seasoned radio performers, accompanied by specially composed musical scores. In the pre-and early-TV era, these imaginatively produced shows nurtured the imaginations of countless American youngsters with a simple but potent fusion of spoken word, music, and sound effects, which in tandem evoked many a magical image in the collective mind of generations as yet unsullied by the literal visualizations of television.

Let's Pretend was originally (and rather generically) titled The Adventures of Helen and Mary when it was first heard on CBS in September of 1929, the creation of Yolanda Langworthy. In 1934 the title changed to The Land of Let's Pretend (and later, simply Let's Pretend) and the show became the province of Nila Mack, a vaudeville and Broadway actress who had also performed with the Alla Nazimova troupe, and who developed the show's concept to its full potential. Mack wrote the program, adapting her scripts from sources ranging from Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm to the Arabian Nights, while also creating original tales (including an annual Christmas show).

She also directed the weekly productions, which often included promising child stars, many of whom went on to further success in broadcasting, theater, and movies. Additionally, the casts regularly included adult performers, some of whom had grown up on the show to become "steadies," remaining with Pretend until its last broadcasts in the mid-1950s. Performed before a live studio audience of mostly children in CBS's Radio Playhouse 3 in New York City, the show was hosted first by Harry Swan, and later by "Uncle" Bill Adams, who remained with the show until it went off the air.

The weekly format included a musical opening, after which Uncle Bill and cast members decided on some magical mode of transportation to the Land of Let's Pretend. This ritual journey, abetted immeasurably by the assistance of the studio's versatile sound effects man, set the stage for a different tale of fantasy each week.

Though Let's Pretend was consistently popular and won many prestigious media awards in its day, its commercial exploitation seems quite mild by today's standards, being limited mostly to a few storybooks and some children's record albums on Columbia. Thus, few collectible artifacts survive to mark the existence of one of radio's most popular shows for young people.

The esteem with which CBS held Mack's award-winning show was exemplified by the fact that, for the first several years of its broadcast, the network chose to carry the show without a commercial sponsor, until, in 1943, Cream of Wheat became the first and only product to garner that honor. The hot cereal also inspired what may have been among the first, and certainly one of the most memorable examples (at least to a generation of radio-bred children), of the singing commercial. Regular listeners to the show probably still remember the infectious jingle's first few lines:

Cream of Wheat is so good to eat, Yes, we have it every day. We sing this song, it will make us strong, And it makes us shout hooray!

Nila Mack died in January of 1953, and Johanna Johnston wrote the final episodes of Let's Pretend. The last broadcast of one of the most imaginative and well-loved shows of a kinder, gentler era in children's media entertainment was heard on October 23, 1954.

—Ross Care

Further Reading:

Lackman, Ron. Same Time… Same Station. New York, Facts OnFile, Inc., 1996

Dunning, John. Tune In Yesterday: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, 1925-1976. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1976